‘Learning by doing’ is a phrase that seems to have gone out of fashion. Yet this type of learning is more important than ever these days when many children spend long periods seated, completing different ‘pieces of work’, either as schoolwork or homework. Whether they are plotting a trajectory for a superhero’s flight, jumping in puddles or laying out planks and crates to make a sledge for Father Christmas when children are given the time, the stimulus and the resources they demonstrate their innate drive to learn. Does this work when we are thinking about children’s learning – not just in the EYFS but throughout primary schooling? Perhaps it should: why?
Why is this learning by doing important?
Recognising the value of learning by doing is more important now because the BBC’s campaign: Terrific Scientific was launched this week to intervene in what is seen as a crisis in the numbers of young people opting to consider science-related careers. One reason for this may be the fact, as reported in the ‘i’ newspaper, that health and safety concerns are responsible for preventing schools from carrying out experiments. However, the truth is that children in the EYFS and beyond can still do lots of things that don’t involve too many risks – and learn a great deal in the process.
When children have real experiences they find out much more about how things work, the complexities of cause and effect and other scientific concepts. And the bonus? This experiential learning often inspires them to want to become scientists or astronauts or marine biologists. Think about being asked to work out which materials can insulate a home for a pet or are waterproof; of course, we can all make a reasonable guess – but only by testing the real thing are we going to develop our knowledge – which may, in turn, lead to an interest in subjects as diverse as architecture, engineering or fashion. Of course, having their ideas challenged, through discussion with a more skilled adult, also helps children to hypothesise and rule out improbable solutions. That’s what great teaching is about.
Characteristics of Effective Learning
Yet, learning by doing can be messy and some schools may be concerned that things that are fun don’t look like learning. Yet, the characteristics of learning, which are a fundamental part of the EYFS, are precisely about ‘learning by doing’. So, what are they and how might they help schools in supporting children’s learning beyond the EYFS?
- Playing and exploring
- Active learning
- Creating and thinking critically
‘Playing and exploring – engagement
‘Finding out and exploring’ is concerned with the child’s open-ended hands-on experiences which result from innate curiosity. These experiences provide raw sensory material from which the child builds concepts, tests ideas and finds out.
‘Using what they know in their play’ describes how children use play to bring together their current understandings, combining, refining and exploring their ideas in imaginative ways. Representing experiences through imaginative play supports the development of narrative thought, the ability to see from other perspectives, and symbolic thinking.
‘Being willing to have a go’ refers to the child:
- finding an interest
- initiating activities
- seeking challenge
- having a ‘can do’ attitude
- being willing to take a risk in new experiences
- developing the view that failures are opportunities to learn
Active learning – motivation
‘Being involved and concentrating’ describes the intensity of attention that arises from children engaged in following a line of interest in their activities.
‘Keeping on trying’ refers to:
- the importance of persistence even in the face of challenge or difficulties
- an element of purposeful control which supports resilience
‘Enjoying achieving what they set out to do’ builds on the intrinsic motivation which supports long-term success. It refers to the reward of meeting one’s own goals, rather than relying on the approval of others.
Creating and thinking critically
‘Having their own ideas’ covers the critical area of creativity – generating new ideas and approaches in all areas of endeavour. Being inventive allows children to find new problems as they seek challenge, and to explore ways of solving these.
‘Using what they already know to learn new things’ refers to the way children use narrative and scientific modes of thought to:
- develop and link concepts
- find meaning in sequence, cause and effect
- find meaning in the intentions of others
‘Choosing ways to do things and finding new ways’ involves children in:
- approaching goal-directed activity in organised ways
- making choices and decisions about how to approach tasks
- planning and monitoring what to do and being able to change strategies’ (EYFS Handbook, 2017)
The above areas could make all the difference to primary school children in Y1, Y2, Y3 and beyond, if opportunities for learning by doing were increased, so that being curious, finding new ways to do things and exploring were a fundamental part of their everyday learning experiences……. just a thought!
Phone Apps Research
Some interesting research into the use of phone apps has also just hit the news: funded by the Sutton Trust and led by Oxford University, this showed that using an ‘app’ improved the concentration and problem-solving skills of pre-school children when their parents were involved with them in their play. Maybe this doesn’t sound much like learning by doing but the value of having uninterrupted time with an adult is a tremendous bonus for many children.
So, no, learning by doing isn’t just for EYFS, because we should give primary school children more opportunities for learning by doing. Plus, if they are supported to learn, by a more skilful other person, we can be sure that their learning will reach new heights.
‘Doing’ will always trumps ‘telling’ – whether we are three, five or ten! Having a conversation about it with a more skilled person makes it even better. If learning in primary schools were fully based on the more experiential aspects of learning described here it’s probable that we wouldn’t need the kick-start towards science for children in Years 5 & 6 of primary school that the Beeb is giving! But, until the value of learning by doing is recognised universally, then the BBC’s initiative is most welcome and may change the future career choices of hundreds of children!